He first saw him in the dusty streets of Morro Coyo. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, but it was hard to tell because there was always the chance he was small for his age. Wiry and thin, his light blonde hair gleamed in the sun. This seemed at odds with the rest of him that was brown with the dirt of the road. His bare feet skittered across the planks of the board walk and then back down to the hard packed earth, never stopping for a moment as he ran here and there, seemingly with no purpose.
Johnny smiled, remembering that feeling, running simply because it felt good to do so. He also remembered the feeling of the dirt on his toes and then hopping on the sidewalk to relish the cool smoothness of it before skipping back down to the heated ground of the street. He continued to watch the boy discreetly from the vantage point of his chair outside the saloon. He’d bought a beer after getting the supplies for Murdoch and Teresa and then gone out to relax a while before heading home. The remnants of a cool breeze wafted through his hair and made his memories all the more strong.
As the boy ran and dodged horses and men in the streets, his pale hair flew this way and that. His angular features were relaxed and happy. He was a handsome child, and seemed to know it as he occasionally grinned up at a young lady making her way down the walk or at a cowboy who sat a horse in such a manner that attracted his attention. There was a familiarity to those features that captured and held Johnny’s attention. The kid slowed to a walk and began ambling over to where Johnny sat and as he drew closer, Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the slight grin and slate-blue eyes that regarded him carefully. Suddenly, a pang of deep loneliness hit him hard, a feeling akin to being shot some might say, and he found himself blinking the pain away. It was the hair, something about the mouth, and those damned gray-blue eyes that got to him. That had to be it.
He missed Scott something fierce and it was a feeling he hadn’t had in a long time. That feeling was enough to make him swear off letting people get close. Johnny Madrid could handle physical pain, but pain of the heart, well, that was another matter. He would avoid that pain like most people avoided a snake. But he’d gone and ignored the danger and let Scott get close. Johnny sighed, lowered his head, and briefly let the sadness envelope him. He spent much of his time trying to keep busy, working so hard that Murdoch was worried. He didn’t mean to make the old man fearful, but there was a drive to stay occupied that he couldn’t avoid. When he tried to take some time off it always ended the same, with him sitting there thinking about Scott, just like now. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do to change things anyhow. Sitting around fretting about the past was useless, but something familiar would happen and the memory of his brother and all he was would strike him. Then he’d be up and moving again, desperately trying to clear his mind if for only a while. Johnny finally raised his head and was a little startled when he looked up to find himself eye to eye with the boy.
“What are you doing there, Mister? You look like you lost your best friend. That’s what Mama used to tell me when I was quiet and sad like you are now.”
Johnny couldn’t help the grin that appeared. The kid wasn’t shy, that much was very clear. “Ah, I was just thinkin’ about somebody. Ever have a memory so strong it’s like someone you’re rememberin’ is right there beside you?”
“Sure, Mister, I know what that’s like. I think about my mama all the time, and sometimes, well, sometimes I forget she’s gone. For a minute it’s nice, and then I’m sad for a while. Is that what it’s like for you?”
Dios. Why was he telling this young kid his business? But the sincere look in the kid’s eyes and his direct manner of speaking were so reminiscent of his brother that Johnny felt compelled to keep speaking. “You know, I think you’ve got it described pretty well. You’re new to town, aren’t you? You move here with your pa?”
The boy looked away briefly as he seemed to ponder how much information was okay to divulge. When he looked back at Johnny, his expression was somber. “Yep. We’ve moved around some after Mama died. Pa said he needed a new start. He said there were too many memories in the old house and we needed to get on with life. I kinda miss our place, though.”
Johnny met the kid’s eyes. “I know how it is. Maybe when you get a bit older you can go back for a visit. I think you might be glad your father was wise enough to do what he did, no matter how hard it is for you now. Is it just you and your pa?”
Again the boy looked away as he seemed to consider his answer. “Yep. But we stay with my Aunt Rachel. It’s my pa’s aunt really. She’s old.”
Johnny snickered. “Oh, that must be fun.”
“Why do you think I’m out here, Mister? She’s okay, really. I just have to leave before she makes me do more chores. If she sees me, she thinks of things I can do to help.”
“I know somebody just like that.” Johnny rolled his eyes as if in commiseration.
“You do? Is that why you’re out here too?”
Johnny stood and gently clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Could be. Could be. I know. Why don’t we head over to the General Store? I’ve got a hankerin’ for some sweets.” Johnny stepped off the sidewalk and headed out toward the little store on the other side of the street. The boy followed him without a second glance. Johnny asked, “What’s your name? Mine’s Johnny Lancer.”
This time the boy looked at him directly as if he had decided it was safe to give that information. “My name is Arthur. Don’t like it much though.”
“No? Why not?”
“I don’t know. It sounds stuffy. Like some old guy’s name that has his nose stuck in books all the time. Can’t change it though. It’s what my mama wanted.”
Johnny smiled and nodded his head in understanding. “Well, you could get you a nice nickname. Ever thought of that?”
“No, never knew anyone with a nickname, ‘cept my pa. Don’t know if he’d like me getting one.”
Johnny wandered inside the store and took some time looking over the various candies. He glanced at Arthur who was eyeing the sweets with a longing that made Johnny grin in remembrance. “Pick you out something. It’s my treat today.”
“Oh, I can’t do that, Mister. Pa says I’m not supposed to take hand-outs. It’s not proper.”
Johnny smiled. “Well then, first of all, it’s Johnny, and secondly, help me pick out somethin’ and then I’ll share. It’s not proper to eat in front of others, either, is it?”
Arthur grinned widely. “No, Johnny, I don’t suppose it is.”
After looking over the candy for several minutes they decided on peppermints and licorice whips. Johnny hated licorice. The boy would leave with the whole bag after Johnny pretended to grow tired of it.
Gathering up the little bags, Johnny headed over to the table that housed the checkerboard and pieces. “You wanna play a game?”
The boy looked at him with sad eyes. “Don’t know how, Johnny. Always did want to learn, but we never had a board and, well … just never did happen, I guess.”
Johnny sat in one of the chairs, plopped the candy down on the little table and indicated the other chair. “Sit yourself down, then, and I’ll teach you. You seem like a quick study, Little Boston.”
It was out before he knew what he said or why. He shook his head and looked at the kid, expecting to see puzzlement. Instead, the boy simply sat at the table and looked at him expectantly, as if the new nickname was the most natural thing in the world and the only thing that really mattered was learning how to play checkers. Johnny laughed for the first time in what seemed like forever.
Johnny drove the wagon home that evening with a much lighter heart than he’d had in a long time. He smiled every time he thought of Little Boston’s enthusiasm over a simple game of checkers. It was a good thing that boy didn’t like his given name much, because once that nickname had slipped out of his mouth, Johnny didn’t think he could bring himself to call him Arthur. The kid had picked up the game very fast and it wasn’t long before he was grinning with the triumph of a win. That and the bag of licorice whips had sent the boy on his way with a dazzling smile and eyes that sparkled. Johnny couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment and was glad when the boy had asked him if he would come back to town soon. Of course, Johnny had said he would. How could he disappoint the little guy?
As the wagon rattled into the yard, Jelly was quick to come out of the barn and greet him. He seemed to sense a difference in Johnny right away. The old coot could always tell when something was bothering Johnny, so it only stood to reason Jelly could tell when he was feeling good about something as well.
“Hey there, boy. Murdoch was just sayin’ he was beginnin’ to wonder about ya. How’d the trip to town go? You seem happy enough up there. Did you meet yourself a pretty girl or somethin’?”
Johnny flashed his friend a grin. “Or somethin’, Jelly. Am I in time for supper or did I miss it again?”
“Well, that’s new, you askin’ about supper. First time in a while I heard that. Nah, you’re still early. I heard Maria’s got fried chicken and tater salad and them frijoles you say you like so much. Good thing you feel like eatin’ for a change.”
“Jelly, not only do I feel like eatin’, I’m plumb near starved. Help me get these supplies put away and I’ll race you to the table.”
Jelly snorted. “Right. Like that’s gonna to happen. Just get yourself down and help me, will ya?
Johnny laughed as he jumped down off the wagon and threw a companionable arm around the older man. It felt good to laugh again. He’d enjoy it while he could and chase away the lonely thoughts that always threatened to creep up as soon as he thought he could escape them. For now, he’d live in the moment and appreciate the friendship he’d found in town and that he had at home.
Meals in the Lancer household were significantly different nowadays. Scott had always been the one to recount events concerning the family business. He and Murdoch would have long conversations about their visions for the future of the ranch or its past history. Sometimes Johnny would listen, but other times he’d have a side conversation with Jelly or Teresa. Murdoch’s supper conversations with his younger son usually entailed events that happened out on the ranch or even gossip about various hands. Johnny made an effort to put enough humor into his observations to make his old man laugh. He had the opinion Murdoch didn’t laugh nearly enough, and laughter was what Johnny felt had pulled him through a life that too often was closer to tragedy than comedy. Murdoch and he were becoming close, even as close as Scott and his father, which surprised the younger son quite a bit. He supposed those talks and the occasional ride together out on the vast grasslands of the ranch were what had done it. Their mutual respect was growing into something else, and whether Murdoch knew it or not, Johnny cherished that new feeling intensely.
Trouble was, things were different now. Johnny couldn’t bring himself to fill in the holes in the conversation that should’ve covered topics that Scott usually spoke about. He’d tried at first, but it just didn’t seem to work and Murdoch sensed it too. He stopped trying as well. Then, well, no one really felt like sharing funny stories anymore. After a while, Teresa would spin a good yarn about the goings on in town or some such, and Jelly’s observations could usually bring a smile. As for Johnny, he mostly didn’t feel like talking much. It wasn’t the same without having those slate-blue eyes to shoot a glance at as he began recounting some event that would have Murdoch’s eyebrows going up. The little asides were gone, as well as the warning kicks under the table. Simply stated, for Johnny, the fun had left with his brother. He basically ate and listened and finally, even that would be too hard. More and more often, Johnny would merely work so long that he’d come home to a warmed supper, eat enough to stave off hunger, and then go to his room to fall into bed in exhaustion. Avoidance became a way of life.
Johnny couldn’t exactly say why, but today marked a re-emergence, no matter how fleeting it might happen to be, of his old self. Well, not his old-old self, but the one he considered to be Johnny Lancer. The time spent with the young boy rejuvenated him and made him remember certain more pleasant aspects of his own brief childhood. He liked that feeling, relishing the memories that had helped make him who he was. It was much like the emotions he’d felt when he’d been around Scott sometimes. It was nice to find out that he could experience them without having to be in his brother’s presence. He’d begun to think he’d lost those particular feelings forever.
Supper was enjoyable and Johnny actually laughed at a story Jelly was relating about a calf who got his head caught in a bucket and how many cowhands it had taken to remove the poor scared creature. He’d have to remember to tell Little Boston. He figured it would make the kid laugh too. When he glanced over at Murdoch, there was such a look of relieved affection on his face that it almost took Johnny’s breath away. He really had to work harder at getting back to himself and perhaps the key was that boy.
It was a cheat really. The boy was a reminder of Scott in so many ways. But Johnny sensed that the kid could use a friend too. He suspected that some of the same emotions bombarding him were also confronting Arthur. It would be good to help someone who needed him. He’d grown so withdrawn that the only help he’d really been able to offer lately was in the form of physical strength and work. Once more he resolved to make an effort to find the boy. Maybe they’d play checkers again or he’d teach him some other things. Things that involved having a good time and not work or chores. He had a feeling they both could use it. Johnny heard his name and it brought him out of his reverie.
Murdoch said, “John. You sure seem deep in thought over there. Something happen in town today?”
Teresa had already left the table, but Jelly looked at him expectantly. Johnny shook his head. He’d tell them about the boy, but something made him want to keep most of his thoughts to himself. For now, anyway. Perhaps in the not too distant future he’d bring that kid to Lancer and show him a close-up view of a large working ranch. He’d need to meet his pa first and all that, but he figured Little Boston would be awe struck.
Murdoch was still watching him, his expression becoming bewildered.
“Nothin’ exciting. Just met a kid. He and his pa are new to town … his ma died not long ago. I bought him some candy and taught him to play checkers. That’s about it.” The lie was merely one of omission, but even his old-old self sent him a twinge of guilt. Johnny Madrid had been brutally honest most times and Johnny Lancer was usually worse. Damn it all, anyway.
Murdoch smiled and let him off the hook. “He probably could use a friend.” His tone indicated Johnny could use one as well, but at least he didn’t say it outright.
Of course, Jelly wouldn’t be so accommodating. Later, while Johnny was working with Barranca out in the barn, the old man approached him. He was apparently full of curiosity.
“Now come on, boy, don’t tell me what’s got you in a better mood’s just some kid. I’m findin’ that a little too hard to believe.”
“Believe what you want, Jelly. I told you that’s what happened in town.”
“Well, there must be somethin’ mighty special ’bout this boy.” Jelly said the last word as if he doubted his existence.
Johnny began to feel some resentment. It was still hard to banter with his family and friends now, and Jelly was pushing it. “Maybe there is. You never know. Now leave me be, Jelly, before you wear out your welcome. Comprende?” He sent the older man a Madrid look for good measure. That usually did the trick for everyone except Murdoch and Scott, who were likely as not to consider it an invitation to nag at him more. It worked with Jelly though, and this time was not an exception. He harrumphed and moved out of the barn muttering something about youngsters gettin’ too big for their britches. Johnny smiled. He’d have to explain to them all later, when he understood himself, why a little kid with eyes and a smile like his brother’s could make him feel alive again.
Several days passed before Johnny ventured back to Morro Coyo. There was always much to do on a ranch, and now that they were down a man, or a son, it was even more brutal. Johnny could feel himself drifting quickly back into the state of mind that had him working way too long and avoiding human contact way too much. As soon as he could muster the energy, he told Murdoch he was going into town to get some fencing materials. Murdoch seemed relieved to hear it, and as usual these days, concerned. He made Johnny promise he’d be careful and not get into any danger. Poor Murdoch. Worry had become as much a part of his existence as avoidance had become a way of life for his younger son. Johnny had no doubt one role was as difficult as the other. He wished he could be more supportive, and knew once he was better, he would be. It was one of the reasons he made himself go to town when he really only wanted to keep working until he was so exhausted nothing but bed and sleep mattered.
As Johnny drove the wagon up the dusty road, he wished he’d been more forward and asked the kid where he lived. He really hated to play the Pinkerton man, and knew that more than one protective soul would wonder about his intent if he did inquire around about the boy. He stopped for the supplies, made his purchases, and had just about finished loading them when a familiar voice rang out from across the street. Johnny could never have stopped the smile on his face after hearing Arthur joyfully yell his name. He turned and watched as the thin kid with the flash of golden hair began running toward him.
“Hey! Johnny! I thought you were never gonna come back to town. I’m real glad to see you!”
Johnny turned and greeted Arthur with a manly handshake as the boy ran up to him. The kid beamed.
“So what’s going on, Little Boston? How’s life treatin’ you these days?”
“Truth is, Johnny, it’s been borin’. Just plain dull. I’ve been looking for you every day so we could play checkers again. Why you been gone so long, anyway?”
Johnny turned back to the wagon and adjusted the fencing before replying. “Well now, you know I’m a rancher, and just like your aunt tells you, there’s a lot to be done when running a house or a ranch. I got back to town when I could get away. You helpin’ out at your place like you should?” He turned his head to meet the boy’s gaze.
“Sure, Johnny. No way Aunt Rachel would let me get away with being lazy or something. I do up my chores real fast and help her with a few extra and then I sort of disappear. If I stay around her, I’ll never get away from the house at all.”
“Well, if that’s the case, maybe you and me can try somethin’ different today. You ever been fishin’ much?”
Arthur’s eyes grew large. “Not since we left our old house. Now that place had some real nice fishin’ holes, but my dad didn’t let me go much. He was gone a lot and he wouldn’t let me go by myself or nothin’. I tried to tell him I could swim, but he didn’t want me to make my mama worry.”
Johnny nodded. “As it should be. But seein’ as I’d be with you, I figure he wouldn’t mind us throwin’ a few hooks out, you think? There’s a fishin’ hole just off the road east of town. That very far from your house?”
“I know where it is!” Arthur had a grin that looked like it was a mile wide. “It’s on the way to Aunt Rachel’s place. I’ve asked her before if I could fish there, but she said not until my pa was with me and we got permission.”
“Well, we know I ain’t your father, but I’d keep an eye out for you. Cyrus … that’s the man who owns the place, well, he told me I could fish there whenever I wanted. Says there’s some big catfish that keep eatin’ his little fry. He wouldn’t mind us takin’ a few of the big ones off his hands. ‘Sides, my ol’ man was tellin’ us how much he had a hankerin’ for some fried fish. I brought an extra pole. Feel like taggin’ along?”
“Sure, Johnny! It’s not far from our place so I could get home at supper time, like I’m s’posed to. You know how to get worms?”
Johnny laughed. “I’ve been diggin’ up worms since before you were born. Come on, Little Boston, and I’ll show you how this is done.”
Arthur jumped in the wagon and they headed down the road a piece. It wasn’t long until Johnny pulled up the team and the two fishermen hiked their way to the water. It was a small pond, only deep in the middle, but a strong throw could clear the reeds and grasses along the shore and land a hook and bobber right where it was likely for a fish to sense a tasty meal.
Luck didn’t seem to be with them for a long while. Johnny had only caught a couple of medium-sized fish and Arthur had yet to even get a nibble. Finally, after much waiting and swapping of stories, Johnny jumped up from where he’d propped his back against a large tree. His bobber had gone completely underwater and the line began to zigzag this way and that. Whatever had the hook was huge. Arthur quickly pulled out his own line to give Johnny maneuvering room and cheered as he watched Johnny struggle to bring the big fellow in. It took a while and Johnny thought he’d lost the fish at least twice before he managed to bring it to shore. Arthur was ready to grab the fish by the line as Johnny brought it in. The boy held the massive catfish aloft in triumph as soon as they scrambled away from the water’s edge, laughing as he struggled to keep both hands on the jerking, slippery string.
Johnny strung the giant cat in the shallows with the other fish he’d caught and he and the boy sat down under the big oak trees to catch their breath. Both faces were flushed with excitement and they laughed for a long time at Johnny’s antics while the fish had been battling him. Arthur swore Johnny almost landed in the water at least three times, but Johnny refused to admit he’d come close to losing his dignity over a “slimy fish with longer whiskers than Jelly.”
Arthur’s curiosity was piqued. “Who’s Jelly? Is he your brother?”
Johnny chuckled. “No, no. He ain’t my brother. More like another father, I guess. He fusses at me like one, anyway.”
“Oh … two fathers. That must be hard. You got any brothers or sisters, Johnny, or are you an only like me?”
Without thinking, Johnny said, “I’ve got a brother. Or I had one. Don’t know what he thinks anymore.”
Arthur’s voice grew quiet as he asked, “He’s one of the reasons you get sad sometimes, isn’t he? I mean, you seem real happy and then all of a sudden … ” Arthur shook his head. “You make me think you’re like me. I get like that when I think about my mama.”
For a moment, Johnny could only stare. This kid’s calm way of addressing problems, as well as his direct manner of speaking, always took him aback. He wondered if Scott had been that way as a child. Probably so. It was a trait Johnny found endearing and one of the things that had made Scott so easy for him to be around. He missed that more than he could’ve imagined.
“Yeah. He’s the one I think about, true enough. You’re a pretty good observer, aren’t you?”
Arthur looked proud. “Yep. My daddy says so. He says I get it from him. He tells me being good at knowing what’s going on around you keeps you alive.”
Something about the way the kid worded that gave Johnny a second’s pause, but he soon found himself thinking about Scott again. He could blame it on the kid’s resemblance, but the fact of the matter was that hanging out fishing, swapping stories about getting in trouble, and laughing about silly plans for the future was something he hadn’t done since his brother left. When he looked up from where he’d been picking off the mud on his boots the boy’s gray-blue eyes were studying him seriously.
“Why’d you say you don’t know if your brother still thinks about you, Johnny? I think once you have one, you always got him, no matter what. That’s why I’m sad my dad and mama never had me a brother. I think it would be great to have someone like that to count on.”
“Ah, it is, Little Boston. It’s one of the best things in the world. It ain’t too late. Maybe your daddy will meet another nice woman someday and you’ll get that brother. That’s how it happened with us. We didn’t have the same mama.”
Arthur seemed to ponder this a bit and then nodded and gave Johnny a small smile before he turned serious again. “You didn’t tell me why your brother don’t see you anymore. He’s not dead is he?”
Johnny swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. Madre de Dios, this kid could get to him quick. “Nah, he’s not dead. He and I had a big fight and then, before I saw him again, he had to leave to go back east. Our old man doesn’t know when he’ll come home, or if he will. Me and my brother, well, it was pretty bad, Little Boston. Don’t know if he’s forgiven me. You know what the worst thing is?”
Arthur continued looking at him somberly. “What’s that, Johnny?”
“What we fought about … it was stupid. I don’t even remember exactly why it got so big. But the fight was a bad one. Don’t do stuff like that, kid. You never know when it might be the last time you see a man.”
Johnny grew quiet. He felt as if those last words had robbed him of air, making it hard to breathe. It was the most he’d said about the incident to anyone, even Murdoch. The argument with Scott was one of the biggest regrets of Johnny’s short life and he’d not been able to talk about it at all. The one person he’d have normally confided in was gone, leaving him alone with his guilt and his grief. Until now … when a kid that looked and acted like his brother stood in his stead.
Johnny could sit still no longer. He jumped up and readied to leave and head back to the ranch. He was having a hard time even looking at the kid, knowing he’d just showed a weakness that he’d carefully hidden away from everyone else.
“You want me to give you a ride to your place? I’ll be going right by there, didn’t you say?”
“That’s okay. It’s just the next house down the road. I’m sorry I made you sad, Johnny. My mama used to say I needed to learn to keep my questions to myself sometimes.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, no. It’s not your fault, Little Boston. Some things I think about no matter what a person says. It’ll be okay. Just takes some gettin’ used to.”
Arthur grinned at him. “It might be the same as you told me. Maybe your brother misses you more than you realize and he’ll be coming back this way soon. It ain’t too late.”
This kid was something else. Johnny let out a laugh. “You never know, you might be right. You’re a pretty wise kid. You remind me a lot of that brother of mine and that’s a compliment. He’s older than me and loves to play the big brother, so if he does ever come back, well, I’ll introduce you. He’ll like seeing that he’s got a namesake that knows how to be a good little brother.” Johnny snickered at his own words.
Oddly enough, the kid didn’t question him about reference to the nickname. He never had, and Johnny began to think he never would. He just smiled big and got ready to head out toward his house.
“Tell you what, Little Boston. Maybe I can meet your father and you can get permission to visit my ranch sometime. How about that? I think you’d like it there.”
“Wow! That would be great, Johnny! You think maybe we could go riding and I could learn how to rope a cow?”
Johnny chuckled. “Sure, if your pa says it’s okay. You could meet my pa, too. I think you’d like him, but he’s kind of scary sometimes.”
Arthur laughed. He was probably amused at the thought that Johnny would be scared of his father. Then he shook his head. “My daddy can be scary too. I know how it is. I sure hope he lets me go. But can we just play checkers in town the next time you come? I really do miss playing.”
Reaching over to pat his young friend on the shoulder, Johnny made a promise. “Yep. We’ll play checkers next time I’m here, so keep doin’ those chores for your aunt. Okay?”
The kid vigorously nodded his head, beamed up at him, and then set off. A few steps later he turned and waved goodbye. Johnny watched him until he rounded the bend in the road and then gathered his string of fish and headed for his own home, promising himself he wouldn’t take so long to return.
True to his word, the next visit to town didn’t take as long to come about. Johnny finished his work early one day and headed out to Morro Coyo. On this trip, another type of fishing took place while the two new friends played checkers. Johnny asked a few leading questions to try to get a sense of the boy’s background and his family.
It seemed that his Aunt Rachel was a hard working woman with little joy in her life. She’d been a widow for several years and had moved close to town from a farm she and her late husband had owned. She was supportive enough of Arthur and his father, but the boy could tell she needed some time to herself occasionally and away from a kid who always managed to be underfoot. They had settled into a routine fairly quickly, with Arthur doing certain chores, then running to the main street of the little town to occupy himself.
Arthur’s father had been punching cows for a ranch in Texas when he met Arthur’s mother. The two of them had moved to California to start their own spread and family. After Arthur’s mother passed away, his father had eventually gotten a job at a small ranch on the other side of Morro Coyo. Often, he’d bunk down there and never make it home in the evening. Sometimes, he’d appear out of the blue and take Arthur hunting or camping. Arthur obviously treasured those times. They just didn’t happen enough. The kid could tell his father missed his mother, but he’d grow annoyed very quickly when his son asked too many questions. Many of Arthur’s thoughts and worries were kept to himself, in spite of his young age.
Aunt Rachel had been a teacher in her younger years and taught Arthur at home. She said he’d go to the school in town next year, because she’d done all the damage she could do. He knew his arithmetic, most grammar rules and all his letters, and was pretty good at writing a story. Arthur said he liked to read and would stay up nights after his aunt had gone to bed, secretly reading books he found on her bookshelf by candlelight. He didn’t want to be thought of as a schoolboy, though. He thought it best to be a cowboy, like his pa, and wanted desperately to know how to ride, rope, and shoot. His father always put those lessons off, as if he had other intentions but wouldn’t voice them. Arthur figured it had something to do with his mama’s desire to make him an educated man that used his brains, instead of his hands, to make a living. Somehow, that didn’t seem nearly as glamorous to the young boy.
“Little Boston, there’s nothing wrong with havin’ book learnin’. My circumstances didn’t give me much chance for that, so I took in everything I could from those that did know about the world. Still do, as a matter of fact. It’s one of the things I miss the most about my brother, Scott. He knows more than any man I ever met, and that’s a fact. But don’t get me wrong, he can shoot and ride with the best of ’em.”
“How is it that he knows so much, Johnny?”
“He was raised in the east and went to a school there. It’s a real famous school called Harvard. You ever heard of it?”
Arthur’s face lit up. “Yeah! Yes, I have. My mama used to talk about it. It’s where she wanted me to go someday, when I grow up. You think I could go to Harvard like your brother, Johnny? They teach you book learning and how to shoot and ride?”
Johnny couldn’t contain the burst of laughter that escaped. “I don’t have a doubt you could go there if you wanted, Little Boston. You need to know that ain’t where Scott learned his shootin’ and ridin’, though. You might be best off learning that here with your pa.”
“If he’ll ever teach me. Most times he doesn’t act like he wants me to know the shooting part. You know how to shoot, Johnny?” Arthur’s glance went to Johnny’s low-slung gunbelt he could partially glimpse under the table, as if daring him to not tell the truth.
Johnny nodded somberly. “Yep, I know how to shoot. Hard to live where I grew up and not know. I’m glad you can wait until your pa is ready to teach you. You don’t want to grow up like I did, way too hard and too fast.”
“Your life was a lot different than your big brother’s, wasn’t it? You didn’t get to go to Harvard.”
“I grew up in Mexico. There wasn’t any Harvard in those parts. What I learned, I learned the hard way. Be glad you got a pa and an aunt who look after you and steer you right. Don’t push ’em too much, kid. They know what’s best. Maybe if you concentrate on the ridin’ you might find they’re a little more cooperative.”
“You ride real good, Johnny. I saw you come in awful fast on that gold horse. He’s beautiful. You think you could teach me to ride like that?”
“No, no. That’s for your pa to do. If he says you can, I’ll let you ride at the ranch when you come, but any fancy ridin’ and ropin’ and such is for him to show you.”
Arthur sat quietly for a moment, looking intently at his checkers. He made a move and then looked up at Johnny. “You think you could come meet my pa soon? I sure would like to go visit that ranch of yours.”
Johnny smiled and said, “I think maybe we could go see your aunt on my way on back to Lancer this afternoon. You could introduce me and we’ll find out when your daddy will be around. He might even be there this evening.” While he spoke, Johnny made a risky move with his checker and Arthur promptly jumped him and laughed triumphantly.
“I think I’m getting good at this game, Johnny. You’re going to have to quit giving me breaks! My pa isn’t supposed be home tonight, but maybe Aunt Rachel knows when he’ll be likely to show up. I can’t wait for you to meet him. You’ll like him a lot.”
Shaking his head in pretend exasperation, Johnny said, “You’re right about those breaks, Little Boston. And I’m guessing your pa is a good man, if I was to judge him by his kid. I look forward to meeting him.”
Later, he’d remember those words and wonder.
After the game was complete and Arthur was savoring another victory, Johnny pulled the boy up behind him on Barranca and set off for Aunt Rachel’s house. Johnny could tell the kid was enjoying his ride, even if it was only on the backside of the golden horse. He made it a point to remember to ask Arthur’s father if he could help the kid learn to ride. Maybe they could even give Little Boston a horse. That would be something that the boy would really love and even if the aunt couldn’t take on a horse, Johnny knew it would be easy enough to stable it at Lancer.
As they approached the house, Johnny could see an older woman waiting on the porch. Her brown hair was going gray and was pulled up in a severe bun with wisps of hair escaping to curl around her temples. She was watching them approach with a rather stern look on her face and the dish towel she held in her hand was clenched tightly. Damn, Johnny already felt like he’d been caught doin’ something wrong by a cranky schoolmarm and was hoping he didn’t have to start making excuses for the kid right off.
Johnny continued his careful journey and pulled up Barranca directly in front of the small house. Its neat and trim appearance was as prim and proper looking as the woman before him and Johnny felt as intimidated in the little woman’s presence as he did when facing some sneaky-eyed gunfighter. Truth told, probably more.
The scowl on the aunt’s face didn’t show any sign of relaxing, so Johnny removed his hat and plunged ahead with his introduction.
“Howdy, ma’am. My name’s Johnny Lancer. I was on my way home and I told young Arthur here I’d be glad to give him a ride.” As he spoke, Johnny reached one hand behind him and helped the boy climb off Barranca. Johnny quickly determined there would be no invitations to sit down for a cup of coffee and homemade cookies. Probably best to keep it short and pleasant and come back when Arthur’s father was around.
“Yes, I imagined that was who you were when I saw you riding up here with the boy. He’s been talking about you for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure of your intentions, young man. However, I am sure I don’t care for you becoming as presumptuous as to be spending so much time with the boy. He’s not supposed to be talking with strangers and he certainly isn’t to be getting rides from them.”
Her scowl only deepened as she looked down at Arthur. “Get on inside before your pa comes home and gives you more than a tongue lashing. Wash up for dinner. I’ll be in shortly.”
Arthur looked up at Johnny and sent him a small smile. “Thanks, Johnny. I appreciate the ride. Maybe you can still talk to my father sometime.” With a quick glance at his aunt, the boy scurried off.
With Arthur in the house and out of hearing range, his aunt turned her attention to Johnny. Her demeanor changed, and she no longer seemed angry and bitter, but deeply concerned. Her eyes had a sad look about them and her features became more care-worn rather than stern.
“I’m sorry, young man, but you have no idea what you have let yourself in for. I’m telling you this now, and I hope to never have to say it again. You need to ride out of here today, and leave that boy alone. I know he’s a good boy, and smart, and you were just trying to be a friend to him. Why, I have no way of knowing, but he describes you as someone who could use a friend too.”
Johnny colored a bit at this and looked away. Little Boston had apparently once again been blunt and to the point with his observations, and once again he’d nailed Johnny pretty squarely. He looked back up at the woman to try to explain and she shook her head.
“I don’t want to know why. I don’t want to know anything about you. I can see how you wear your gun and I have known your type. That’s enough for me. Now you ride off and stay away from that boy. He doesn’t need to be around the likes of you. He’s had enough death and sadness in his life.”
Johnny felt a burst of anger at this woman’s declarations and no longer could remain silent. “Now, wait a minute! How come you’re so quick to make judgments of me, ma’am? I never did a thing to make you mistrust me like that. Arthur’s told me he’s mentioned me, so you must know I’m not someone to be worried about. I only wanted to help the kid out some. He seemed kind of lonely and wanted to know how to play checkers. I don’t care if you want to chew me out for it, but don’t go after him too, okay? He hadn’t done nothin’ wrong. Not a thing.”
Aunt Rachel’s eyes grew hard again. “As long as he stays away from you, he’ll have nothing to worry about from me. He will know the consequences if he chooses to disobey.”
Johnny gave her a pleading look. “Listen, can I at least talk to his father? The boy wanted to visit our ranch and I practically promised him he could if his father agreed.”
All at once, the hard mask was gone again. This time the woman spoke softly as if in confidence. “Hear what I’m saying. That boy’s father knows about you and I’m only saving you from a worse confrontation with him. Stay away from his son. You seem like a good man. Don’t cause yourself trouble you don’t need.”
Aunt Rachel gave him a last meaningful look and then turned on her heel and entered the house, leaving a bewildered Johnny sitting on his horse with his hat in his hand.
Johnny rode home with a heavy heart. He never wanted to be a problem for Arthur, and now it seemed he inadvertently had become one. On the other hand, the kid’s aunt had appeared to be hiding something, and this also disturbed Johnny. He prided himself on being good at reading people, his past life had actually depended on it. When he got the instinctive feeling that the woman had been concealing some secret, Johnny’s protective nature went on alert. He couldn’t really put his finger on it, but there was something about Arthur and his aunt that didn’t add up. As Johnny rode under the arch to his home, he made up his mind. He’d find out whether his instincts were right and if the kid was in some kind of trouble. If he was, Arthur would soon discover just what kind of friend Johnny Lancer could be.
Barranca was given extra care that evening. All of Johnny’s frustration and disappointment were calmed as he spent time with his horse. Jelly wasn’t fooled by the effort spent on the animal and walked over to lean on the rails of the stall and watch the younger man as he worked.
“Hey, boy. You doin’ okay? You’re worryin’ over that horse like he’s your best friend. Lately you were seemin’ your old self, but now you’re back to bein’ all quiet like. Somethin’ I can help you with?”
“Not nothin’ besides you goin’ away and botherin’ somebody else, old man. That would help me out.”
Jelly just kept standing there and when Johnny finally looked up, he could tell he’d hurt the older man’s feelings. Damn it. That was the last thing he wanted to do. Friends were hard to come by these days and he didn’t need to be running off the few remaining ones he had.
“Aw Jelly, I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean that. It’s just some shit happened in town and it’s got me out of sorts. Best be leavin’ me alone now, or I’m liable to get pissy again. I can’t spend all night apologizin’ for what I say or do.”
Jelly’s expression softened and his voice grew quiet. “What happened, boy? Somethin’ up with that kid you were so taken with? I thought you were goin’ to bring that boy here to the ranch. Still plannin’ on it, aren’t ya?”
Sometimes Jelly was just too damned perceptive. “Things do have a way of changin’, Jelly. Don’t know if the boy will be able to make it. He may be in some trouble. I intend to snoop around a bit and see what I can find out.”
Jelly shook his head. “Now there ya go. Gettin’ into other folks’ business. What makes you think the boy has some troubles, Johnny?”
“His aunt warned me off. Told me to stay away from the boy. She couldn’t give me no reason ‘cept for the fact she says she knows what I am … or was. I don’t know, Jelly, somethin’ about her and the way she was actin’ makes me worry about that kid.”
“Johnny, don’t go gettin’ involved in somebody else’s problems, ya hear, boy? Likely as not, you’ll go and get hurt in some way and need me and Murdoch to look after ya. You know how you hate us fussin’ over ya.”
Johnny couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped. “I do despise it, Jelly, but here’s the thing. You don’t need to go tell Murdoch about this, okay? He’s got enough worries right now. And if there’s somethin’ goin’ on with that boy and his family, I’ll fill you both in. Esta bien?”
Jelly looked doubtful, but agreed. “Just let us know if things aren’t good for the kid, Johnny. Let Murdoch help you out if somethin’s up.”
Johnny came out of the stall and walked over to Jelly. It had been good to talk to him a little, helped ease the burden some. “I will, Jelly. Now, let’s go get some supper. Can’t have you witherin’ away on me now, can I?” He clapped his friend on the back as they left the barn.
After eating a little and trying to make an attempt at some small talk, Johnny excused himself and went outside to watch the evening sky. He felt a need to be alone and the blanket of sadness that had accompanied him so frequently in weeks past began to settle around his shoulders once again. He was lost in reverie when he heard a noise and looked up to see Murdoch watching him from the doorway. He managed to give him what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but was a little dismayed when Murdoch apparently took it as an invitation to join him.
“You seem kind of quiet tonight, son. Is everything all right?”
Johnny grinned and spoke with a cheerfulness he truly didn’t feel. “Yep. All’s good here. How was your day, old man?”
Murdoch gave him a pretend glare and said, “Everything seems quiet tonight. I’m glad for that. Haven’t heard from your brother in a while, so that’s always a concern. Otherwise, I guess I can’t complain.”
Johnny ignored the reference to Scott. “I’ve got to get some more materials for that line shack tomorrow, Murdoch. Shouldn’t take me long, and I’ll leave first thing in the morning. I’ll take the wagon straight out to the shack after that and finish up repairing the roof.”
“Let me know if you need some help, son. Don’t try to do too much by yourself.”
The two stood in quiet companionship for a while. Finally, Murdoch turned to face him with a question in his eyes. Johnny closed his, figuring he knew what was coming. They’d had this discussion many times before over the last few months. His father had never blamed either son for the quarrel and had purposely avoided discussing details, but he was relentless about the two staying in contact. Johnny could well imagine what Murdoch was writing to Scott.
“Don’t shut down on me, John. You know what’s concerning me here. You could at least read some of Scott’s letters and send him a reply. I think he’s tried to feel things out about you, but without a response, it won’t go anywhere. Just read the last one and send him a line or two. Break the ice, so to speak.”
Johnny hated to disappoint his father over this, he really did. But he would not back down from his position. He looked at Murdoch and asked, “He say anything about comin’ home in those letters you’re so proud of?”
“No, John. No, he hasn’t. I don’t think his grandfather is well enough yet.”
“Or he don’t know if he’s coming back at all. You know that could be it, too. You gotta admit it, old man. Thinkin’ otherwise just sets yourself up for disappointment.”
“True enough, Johnny, he hasn’t said anything about it. But I tend to think that he’ll be back this way when he can. If not, it’s his decision and I’ll live with it … just like you’ll have to do, my son.”
Johnny looked away. No. There was absolutely no way he wanted to discuss the reasons or even the possibility that his brother might leave them here. Johnny would just have to go on without him, not wanting to know the why of it. Better to not know if Scott’s plans were to abandon the ranch and his new family than be forced to deal with the emotional aftermath. Johnny Madrid knew a lot about leavin’ things behind, but it sure as hell didn’t mean he had to like it. Or agree with it. Fuck it all anyway. Whatever Scott wanted was how it would end up. No sense fightin’ over it in mail and he sure as hell wasn’t about to start begging. Not that it would help. Scott was as stubborn as the rest of the Lancer men and whatever he decided to do would be what he did. No matter how many sad letters were sent or brotherly platitudes were shared.
Murdoch gently patted his arm and moved back into the house. Johnny was left standing there watching the stars and thinking of a man who would never know how much he meant to him. He couldn’t do anything about that right now, but he could find out about Arthur. He’d put all the pent up emotions he had about Scott into helping that kid. At least something good might come of it, and maybe Arthur would even thank him for it some day. Taking a deep breath, Johnny resolved to stay committed to that task and he’d start it as soon as he could get away in the morning.
He left as soon as the sun began peeking over the horizon. The air was cool and as the wagon bumped and jolted over the rutted road out of Lancer, Johnny allowed himself to simply enjoy the morning. The worries of the evening before seemed somehow distant and having a plan always helped with that. Birds flew overhead and in the distance he spied deer grazing peacefully at the tree line. It was hard to be sad in a land as beautiful as this and the mere fact that he owned a third of it was awe-inspiring. It always amazed him that Murdoch had built this piece of heaven from nothing and with very little help. It never took long, especially when he rode alone over the vast expanses of the ranch, before he felt a deep admiration for the man that he had so recently come to know as his father. Murdoch’s love for the land was now extended to his sons and the magnitude of that blessing gave Johnny a sense of harmony and peace he’d never experienced in his life.
It was times like these that Johnny began to feel that anything was possible. He’d go get his supplies and hang around town for a bit. He’d find Arthur and set things straight with him. Then, he would meet the boy’s father even if he had to drive the wagon over to that ranch. Hopefully, he could help the kid a little in the process. As for himself, with the sweet smelling breeze of Lancer in his face, it was difficult to imagine Scott staying absent forever. His brother would return before too long, and they’d work things out. It might be awkward at first, both of them had been complete asses the last time they’d seen each other. But Scott was nothing if not a logical man, and Johnny had his moments of clarity as well. The vision of Lancer included all of its family members and one of them was gone. Once Scott returned, that vision would be complete again. Johnny had a feeling that none of them could refuse it, even if they were hell-bent on trying.
The plan clicked along smoothly at first. Johnny’s first stop netted all the supplies he’d need for the line shack as well as a new harness for the matched team Murdoch had recently purchased. It was beautiful, with supple leather and silver hardware. Johnny had saved a month of Sundays to get that thing, but Johnny knew his father would love it as soon as he’d seen it on display. He’d had them take it down and hold it for him (being a Lancer did count for some things) and now he’d finally paid it off. He was outside admiring it when the familiar voice rang out from across the road.
“Johnny, hey Johnny! I didn’t think I’d see you back again so soon!” Arthur ran up and the joy at seeing him was evident on his face.
Johnny grinned back. “Well, I had to come in for some supplies and this. Lookee here. I bought this harness for my father. It’s beautiful, huh? You think he’ll like it?”
Arthur’s blue-gray eyes took it in somberly, seriously weighing the question. Finally he looked up. “I don’t know, Johnny. I haven’t met your pa. But I think he’d have to be crazy not to like that. It’s the most beautiful harness I’ve ever seen.” Only then did the kid flash a brilliant smile.
Johnny laughed. “Well, Little Boston, if you think so, then it must be. I’m bettin’ my old man will love it even if he can be a bit persnickety. I’m with you … anybody that don’t admire this has to be loco. Maybe you can come see it on the pretty bay team he has after I give it to him.”
As soon as the words left his mouth a rough hand landed on his shoulder. Johnny found himself quickly propelled backwards to the alley between the store and a boarding house. Before he had time to get his bearings, a giant fist came up and hit him squarely between the eyes. He stumbled to the ground, his nose pouring blood. He didn’t pass out, but the stars made it difficult to concentrate. Back over in the front of the store by the wagon, he could hear a rough voice telling Arthur to shut the hell up and get home before his backend was tanned so hard he couldn’t sit down for a week.
The fog and confusion set in completely, so when the owner of the voice entered the alleyway all Johnny could do was use the wall to help him stand as he blinked incomprehensibly at the man. The first man, the one that had hit him, stood back.
“I took him out, Red. Just like you said.”
The man called Red nodded. “You did good. Now get the fencing and go on back to the ranch. I’ll follow later after I’m done here. Just tell the foreman I got hung up in town with my kid and I’ll be along directly.”
So this was Arthur’s father. Not exactly the kind of introduction Johnny had hoped for this morning. And, in fact, not really an introduction at all, it turned out. Texas Red was not new to him and hadn’t been for a very long time.
“So, Johnny Madrid. Just as I thought. When Arthur came home spouting off about the cowboy he’d met that had flashy silver conchos on his leather pants, wore his gun low just like he’d do some day, and rode a horse as fast as greased lightnin’, well, I had to do me some research. Didn’t take long to find out that there was a pistolero in town, sure enough. One that used to go by Johnny Madrid, but now has the balls to call himself Lancer. Quite a turnabout, hey Madrid?”
Johnny just looked up at the man and grinned through the blood. “What’s the matter, Red? Jealous?”
Red’s fists weren’t as big as his companion’s, but they hurt almost as much. One swift punch caught him in the ribs and another glanced off his head, smacking him right in the eye. Blood immediately began streaming out of a little cut over his eyebrow, making it even harder to see.
“You always did have a big mouth, Madrid. Soft talkin’ and a great big mouth. I used to laugh at that shit you’d spew. I ain’t laughin’ now, if you noticed. Might be good if you shut up a while and listened. It could save that pretty face of yours from further damage.”
Johnny knew enough to take good advice when he heard it. His hand did stray to his gun, however. He’d still put his skills at the game over Texas Red’s even with a nose two times too big and an eye already swelled up so bad he could only see a small slit out of it.
“No need for that, boy. That’s why I had to play rough with you. I didn’t want you thinkin’ I was tryin’ to get you back in the game. That’s not why I’m here at all. In fact, truth be known, I owe you a favor. But, I’ll get to that later. You ready to shut your mouth and listen for a change?”
Johnny just kept standing there, waiting for Red to say his piece. He’d deal with the repercussions of the beating later, when he had time to regroup.
After pausing a moment, Red continued his speech. “My aunt told you to leave my kid alone. If I had known for sure it was you, I’d have bet things would’ve ended up just as they have. You never could take orders from nobody. But this time, you will. That kid’s all I got left, Madrid. You don’t know how that is, with kids and all, but maybe someday you will. If you’ll listen and let both of us walk away in one piece that is. Or in your case, kinda crawl away.” Red guffawed at his own joke while Johnny tried to glare at him through one eye that was also well on its way to swelling closed to match the other one.
“Now, me and my kid, we’ll be leavin’ here in a couple of days. I’m going back to my little spread we left after his mama died. His mama died hard, Madrid. She was taken by a stray bullet when some bushwackin’ asshole was looking for me. Luckily, Arthur was at a neighbor’s place. He didn’t have to see how his mama left the world. But I did and I ain’t never forgettin’. She wanted big things for that boy and he’ll get them. But he’ll get them the right way. He ain’t gonna know the kind of people you was, or me. I’m ready to make damned sure of that.”
Johnny swallowed hard before he spoke. “All you had to do, Red, was talk to me and explain things. I’d have left the boy alone.”
Red shook his head. “No, no, you wouldn’t have. Arthur would’ve kept it from happenin’. He’s a good boy, but he knows how to win folks over. He’s even got his mean-tempered aunt wrapped around his finger. He’s like his ma was in that way.” Red was quiet for a moment and his eyes took a brief far-away look.
The red-haired Texan said, “No, I only know you as Johnny Madrid, and I know that man as one stubborn cuss. If you took it in your mind to help my boy, and I’m sure that’s what you’d call it, then you and me were going to end up in a situation such as this anyway. Maybe worse. He’d find out who you were and then he’d want to know more. It ain’t goin’ to happen that way, Madrid. I aim to guarantee it.”
“Does he know who you are, Red? Does he know what you did for a livin’ back in those Texas border towns? Has he asked you those same questions?”
“He knows enough, all he needs to know for now. When he’s ready, he’ll learn more. It’s different with a boy and his pa. I hear tell you might finally be gettin’ to experience that some. Go ahead and let that happen. You’ll be glad of that time someday and so will your pa. And leave me be with my son. Like I said, he’s all I’ve got left right now, and I mean to keep him safe. He’s meant for better than what you or I had, comprende?
Johnny let himself slide back down the wall. Blood was everywhere and his head was pounding something fierce. He had no fight left in him, at least not with this man. Red’s methods had been cruel and extreme, but the point had been undeniably made.
Red’s voice softened. “I told you that I owed you a favor, and it’s one reason I’m going to leave here and let this be the last meeting between the two of us. I told you about my wife, and how some desperados killed her. Well, those assholes that were gunnin’ for me were some boys you knew. One of ’em was Pardee. He and his gang were passin’ through and he decided to make a play seein’ as he held a grudge from way back. He might as well killed me, ’cause he pretty much took my life. I heard you and your family took him out not too long afterwards. Seems your brother and you both had a hand in his killin’. I owe you. Now I’m takin’ my son and we’re headin’ out shortly. Don’t look for us, Madrid.”
Johnny just shook his head.
Red turned to leave and then stopped. He removed his bandana from his pocket, walked over to where Johnny sat and handed it to him. His tone seemed oddly compassionate as he said, “He may try to find you again someday. That’s different. He’ll be older then and I hope he will understand what I’ve done. You helped my boy, Madrid, and in a strange way you helped me. You bein’ here for him made me realize I had to get back to how I was before his mama passed. I’d turned it around. Just like you’re tryin’ to. Good luck to you, Johnny Lancer. I wish you well.”
With that, the man was gone.
Johnny managed to stumble to the wagon. He sat there for a moment, aware that a couple of curious on-lookers were staring at him. Let ’em, he thought. It wouldn’t be the first time folks had seen him a little worse for wear. Not really knowing why, Johnny laughed a bit to himself. Leave it to him to get involved in some ex-gunfighter’s family matters. Trouble seemed to find him no matter how hard he tried to avoid it. If he was really truthful with himself, he had to admit he didn’t try to avoid it all that much anyway. There had been clues all along, clues he’d ignored because the kid reminded him so much of a brother he missed. That and the fact he’d helped Johnny escape some troubling times of his own. Johnny grimaced as he used his sleeve to wipe away the worst of the blood, and raised the reins to urge the horses forward. It was time to move on.
It was a rough trip from town to the line shack, but he managed to make it there, unload the wagon, and unharness the team before he collapsed inside on one of the little beds. He lay there a while, thinking about Red and the beating he had given him. Johnny wanted to be mad, but he couldn’t muster the energy or something. It just wasn’t in him. The last couple of months had been so full of disappointment and grief that this latest event seemed to be a natural occurrence. He hated thinking that. It really wasn’t in his nature to be so down. Life had dealt him many blows that he’d managed to overcome, but this one was last in a string of really tough ones. He’d get over it, but it might take a while, coming as it did on the heels of Scott’s departure.
Johnny rose from the bed and went outside to pump some cold water over his head. He stood there a while, letting the cold water splash across his bruised face. He was afraid to look at himself. He most likely looked like someone had taken a two by four to his head. It was lucky that his nose hadn’t been broken. He’d remember to thank Red for the small favor some day, or that big-ass cowboy with the ham-sized fists. It wouldn’t be hard to track that one down, if he had a mind to. Johnny doubted he’d see the need, something told him Red had been less than honest with the big galoot. Word would get out and a few well-timed Madrid glares when they encountered each other in town would put the fear of the Lord in him soon enough.
As he stood outside letting the blood-tinged water dribble down his face, he heard a rider approaching. That would just about figure. If his luck held up good it would be some down on his luck saddle tramp spoiling for a quick score of some food. But as the rider came into view, or the limited view he had, Johnny realized it was Jelly and went back to sluicing water over his head in an effort to appear a little less frightening. Didn’t seem to work much, though.
Jelly pulled up quickly and was down by his side in an instant. “My God, boy. What in the hell happened to you?”
“Aw, Jelly, don’t start the fussin’ already. I hadn’t even had a chance to get cleaned off good yet.”
Jelly reached over and grabbed Johnny’s head and then peered into his face. Jelly’s eyes widened and then narrowed abruptly. “Ooo-eee, Johnny. That’s gonna be a double shiner, I think. I’m surprised you can even see a-tall. Come on in the shack, boy, and let me help you get situated. Did you black out? Do I need to bundle ya up and drive ya home in that wagon?”
It was a hint to just how bad Johnny was feeling that he allowed Jelly his mollycoddling. It felt kind of good to let somebody take him around the waist and help him inside. He was urged to lie down and then Jelly worried over him with blankets, cups of water and a promise of something warm to eat. He hadn’t been down long before he drifted off to the sounds of Jelly trying to tiptoe around the shack as he made them a small supper.
When he awoke, he managed to eat some of the biscuits and gravy Jelly had prepared. While Johnny ate, he told Jelly about Arthur’s father and the events leading to the fight, if a person could call it that. More like a beating had been doled out.
Jelly was amazed. “I can’t believe yer sittin’ there talkin’ to me like you just had a polite disagreement in town. Normally, you’d be tryin’ to ride out of here to look for that cowboy and I’d be havin’ to sit on ya to keep ya here fer yer own good.”
Sighing, Johnny explained in a low voice, “The man had a point, I guess, Jelly. Maybe so much has happened lately that I can’t dredge up a good mad, I don’t know. Just seems to me if I really like that kid, it would be best to leave him and his pa alone. I really don’t want the kid knowin’ what his old man did and I think Red knew that. I’ll just stay here, as unlikely as that seems.”
Jelly walked over and gently patted Johnny’s shoulder. “Yer probly right. Sounds like that boy deserves a chance at a better life with his pa. Anyhow, you don’t look like you’d be doin’ too much damage to anybody right at the moment. Best to let them eyes heal up some before you try much of anythin’, and that includes ridin’ a horse.”
Johnny’s eyes were close to being swollen completely shut and he knew the side of his face was so bruised that he hardly looked like himself. That, paired with sore ribs that spoke to him every time he forgot and moved a bit too fast, ensured that he would be staying a night or two in the confines of the little shack. It wasn’t in his nature to cause Murdoch undue worry these days, but there was no way he was going home looking the way he did.
Jelly shook his head and said, “Okay, boy. I’m goin’ back now. You know, I’ll have to tell Murdoch somethin’ ’cause there’s no way in hell yer face is gonna be back to normal when he sees ya. I’ll tone it down some, but I expect you to lay on your backside tonight and take it real easy for the next couple of days.”
Johnny smiled his thanks. “I’ll be okay, Jelly. I’m just going to rest up and let my eyes get to where I can at least see a little better. I know I look a fright, so try to keep the ol’ man away from here, if you can. Okay?”
Jelly snorted. “A fright? Boy, you look like somethin’ a coyote got a holt of, shook to bits, then spit back out. I’ll come out and check on you later on tomorrow. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. I’ll tell Murdoch you’re here and maybe he’ll go along with it. As protective as he’s been since Sc … well, lately, he’ll be mighty curious unless I act like yer up here a-workin’.”
Johnny slowly stood up from the little table and walked with Jelly outside. “I do appreciate it, Jelly. I know I mess with you about the fussin’ and all, but this time I’m pretty glad you were here to do a little of it.”
Jelly climbed on his horse and looked down on Johnny with a sad expression. “Any time at all, Johnny. Just take care of yerself ’til I get back here, okay, boy?”
“I will. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Johnny watched as his friend rode off, feeling that familiar pang of loneliness settle in and missing first that kid, and then his brother, more than he ever thought possible.
That evening was spent in a kind of welcome solitude. The quiet surrounding the line shack was probably what Johnny needed, or so he told himself. It allowed quite a bit of time for thinking and since Murdoch hadn’t come storming in with the gathering darkness, it was relatively guilt-free. His father must’ve accepted Jelly’s story and let Johnny work out his problems by finishing up the shack. If only he knew just how long that could take. Johnny smiled a little at that. It would be a day or two before he’d even attempt any real work and another day before he trusted himself on the roof. By then, someone would probably be here to help him finish up.
He ventured outside and gathered up the harness he’d bought for Murdoch. The pleasure of accomplishment he had gotten from the purchase of the gift seemed so distant now. Once the pain of this day had lessened, he’d look forward to surprising his old man once again. It gave him something pleasant to ponder … how he’d give the harness to Murdoch and whether he would have the team decked out in it or not. By the time the day arrived, he was sure he’d think of some way to best show it off. His father deserved a little happiness too. It had been a while since the man truly smiled.
He wandered around and straightened up the shack some. He grew tired rather quickly and it wasn’t long until he readied for bed. At first he just laid there with his sore head propped on his arms, thinking of Arthur and his father. The pain he was experiencing now was not enough to make him regret meeting the kid. He hoped the boy and his father would make it okay. It would be good to see Arthur someday, maybe full of stories of Harvard. He’d like that. Maybe he really had helped the kid, and perhaps that was why he couldn’t work up the kind of anger he’d normally expect to have toward his father. In order for the kid to be fine, Red had to make it too. As for himself, he’d go back to being lost to the relentless cycle of work and sleep. But something told him he’d get out of it sooner now. Johnny Lancer might be down, but he sure as hell wasn’t out. It would just take a little time.
The first day at the shack came and went with Johnny sticking to easy chores that needed to be done. He swept the place, cleaned the dirty glass of the little windows, and re-organized the pole barn for the horses. He spent some time on them, too, but missed Barranca and his feisty nature. Jelly came in and looked him over and pronounced him “better, but not good.” He made a show out of bringing some of Maria’s food to Johnny and forced him to eat even when he really wasn’t hungry. Johnny would do whatever it took to keep Murdoch at bay, so he appeased Jelly as well as he could. It must’ve worked, because as the sun sank on the horizon, Jelly headed back to the house, but not without promising to see him early the next day.
And so it went, with the second day passing much as the first. The third day was harder. Johnny was getting more and more restless and feeling better, but not good enough to do some of the heavier chores alone. By the time he spotted the rider in the distance, he was well on his way to feeling out of sorts and a bit sorry for himself. He stalked into the house, sat on his bunk, and waited for Jelly there, spoiling for an argument about getting to work on the roof or some other matter. He scarcely looked up when he heard the footsteps at the door, prepared to act pissed off over Jelly’s tardy arrival. But when he heard that familiar voice, he lost it all, every bit of decorum he’d ever hoped to retain was gone in one fateful moment.
Scott stood in the light of the doorway. The late morning sun glinted off his blonde hair and his smoky blue eyes danced with mirth. “Hey there, brother. You must be getting soft, letting me sneak up on you like this.”
Johnny was up in a flash, his mind desperately trying to grasp if what he was seeing was real. “You’re home,” was all he could manage to get out.
Scott laughed. “Apparently so. But you’re not, unless you’ve taken to calling this hovel home. What’s going on with you, boy? You’re a mess.”
His emotions reeling, Johnny took a step forward, his eyes intent on the well-loved face of his brother. “I missed you pretty bad, Boston. Don’t ever do that again, or I might have to go there and drag your sorry ass back, you hear?”
The next thing he knew, he was enveloped in his brother’s careful embrace. Scott reached up and rubbed the back of his head gently. “I missed you too, believe it or not. I must be crazy, but having a little brother to boss around is something I just can’t seem to leave behind.”
Johnny’s shoulders began to shake uncontrollably as he started to laugh while he stood there in his brother’s arms. Only trouble was, this laughter felt a whole lot like crying.
The brothers sat side by side on the small cot. First, Scott related how the wire he’d sent to Murdoch was delayed, resulting in a surprise arrival at the ranch. Scott laughed as he recounted the look on first Jelly’s and then Murdoch’s face.
“It was rather amusing, I must say, although I feel a bit guilty to admit it. They both looked as if they’d seen a ghost. I think Jelly sputtered around for ten minutes before he could say a word.”
Johnny grinned and shook his head. “I can picture it. How’d Murdoch react?”
Scott’s voice became quiet and his expression softened. “He grabbed me up and hugged me. Between his bear hug and my shock, I was afraid I was going to pass out from asphyxiation.”
The thought amused Johnny and he slapped his leg as he laughed outright. God, it felt good to be sitting beside his brother again, swapping stories.
Scott became more somber and his calm gray-blue eyes sought out Johnny’s rather vividly discolored ones. “So, now tell me what’s going on with you, little brother. Jelly told me some … and Murdoch, of course. But I’d rather hear it from you if you’ll tell me.”
“First, I gotta say this. All that shit that happened before you left, that was my fault. I shouldn’t have been trying to go against what you’d told the hands. I’m just not so good at following orders, you know that, and when I get my mind set on somethin’ and how it should be done … hell, I ain’t good at third in command, either.” Johnny had to look down, feeling the shame he’d felt over the many weeks alone hit him full force.
Scott reached over and grabbed Johnny’s chin, forced him to meet his eyes, and gave him a mock glare. “Don’t talk like that, Johnny. We’re brothers and equal partners, not some kind of pecking order in a business. I should’ve talked to you first, before going out and re-directing the hands. You deserve that as much as I do. Forget that nonsense about being third in command. Murdoch may call the tune, but we don’t have to dance for each other. I mean it, Johnny. We’ve both got to learn to communicate better. We’re equally at fault.”
Johnny pulled away from Scott’s hand and shook his head. “Nah, Scott, things happen and there’s no time for all that talkin’. You know when Murdoch ain’t around and we get in a fix, most of the hands see you as jefe anyway since you’re the oldest. You have to be able to trust me with what you need me to do without goin’ against you. I was wrong to get mad, especially in front of the men.”
Sighing, Scott looked up at the rafters for a moment before turning back to Johnny. “Okay. I’ll grant you that one. If a decision needs to be made rapidly and Murdoch isn’t available, I’ll take responsibility for it because I’m the eldest son. But, that isn’t what happened in that case and you know it. You probably shouldn’t have gotten so angry, but you did the right thing and tried to give us some time apart to regroup. There was no way you knew when you volunteered to go to Sacramento that I wouldn’t be here when you got back. If I had been, I think we’d have had this talk then and we’d be fine. Just as fine as we are now.”
Things were getting a little intense for Johnny so he quickly changed the subject. “Your grandfather. He’s gonna be okay then?”
“Yes, Johnny. He began to improve rapidly and then I had to do my own soul-searching. I had thought I might be needed in Boston for quite a while, and with our last fight getting out of hand like it did, I wasn’t sure Lancer was where I needed to be. But when Grandfather began to be back to himself, well … I started remembering why I like it here so much.”
Johnny blinked at Scott. “I can only imagine.” Both brothers broke out in laughter.
Scott continued, “Truth be told, I only made up my mind several days ago. Then when the wire didn’t go through, it set up this comedy of errors. I never meant to cause you this much pain, my brother. Now I know I should’ve made more effort to reach out to you. Like I said, I had my own soul-searching to do. Now, tell me about that boy Murdoch and Jelly were going on about. Apparently he’s the reason for this?” Scott reached over and gently shook Johnny’s chin before he pulled his face around again, examining the bruises with concern.
Johnny allowed the examination, but then quickly moved away when Scott’s other hand sneaked up to ruffle his hair.
“It happened because I kinda lost myself, I guess, and needed to find my way back. It’s a long story. How about a cup of strong coffee while I tell it? You’re gonna have a hard time believin’ some of it, I think.”
“Coffee sounds nice, and from what Murdoch and Jelly said, this story looks to be a good one.”
It took a couple of cups of coffee before the tale was told. As they sat at the shack’s table, Johnny described Arthur to him, told him of their friendship born of mutual need, about Arthur’s father, and finally, how the boy had come to be called Little Boston. Scott laughed at that, but Johnny could tell that it touched him, too.
“Sounds like that kid did you a lot of good. I hope he’ll be happy back at his old place. From what you say, I guess his father was trying to do what was best for him. I’m not too fond of his methods with my brother, and it’s a good thing I won’t be seeing him around, but I’m thinking maybe he was just a bit frightened of Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny smirked. “Yeah, I suppose. I wouldn’t be scarin’ anybody much right now, ‘cept maybe with my looks.”
“Now that won’t get an argument from me, Johnny my boy.” Scott chuckled and shook his head at him.
Johnny suddenly thought of something very important. He jumped up from his chair and went over to the bunk on the other side of the shack. “Come here, Scott, and let me show you this. You gotta help me figure out what to do.”
Scott came over and whistled low as he examined the beautiful harness lying across the bunk. “You get this for Murdoch?”
Johnny beamed up at his brother and asked him shyly, “Yeah, you think he’ll like it?”
Scott nodded his head and stroked the fine leather in appreciation of the craftsmanship. “He’d have to be crazy not to like this, brother. It’s very nice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful harness.”
“That’s just what Little Boston said, Boston.” Johnny laughed.
The two brothers stood together for a long time looking at Murdoch’s gift and trying to figure out the best way to present it. As Johnny listened to Scott’s ideas, he realized just how grateful he was to be having this second chance. For a moment, his emotions threatened to overcome him, so he reached over and pulled Scott into a playful headlock and then laughed again as he danced away from Scott’s retaliatory stomach slap. There was no doubt in Johnny’s mind. Both he and Scott were finally back where they belonged.
One year later, somewhere deep in southern California:
The young boy sat astride his horse and surveyed the land from the little hill overlooking his father’s ranch. It had been a nice day for a ride, and he and the paint had taken full advantage, racing through the grassland and on up the slope of the hill. Now, as he and the pony both stopped to rest, he remembered a time when he’d seen a golden horse run as fast as the wind and he and the man on him had moved as one. He hoped he could be that good some day. He’d keep practicing and his little horse would work at it, too. They were becoming a team and that was good enough for now.
Reaching down to check his rifle, the kid smiled. His father had relented, realizing that a rifle did allow some sort of protection, and his son would need to know how to use one. It would probably take a lot more convincing to get the six-shooter. The boy was patient. It had taken enough talking to get his pa to let his friends and the few hands they had call him Boston. Finally, when he explained that it was where he was going to school one day just as his mama had wanted, his pa agreed, although he doubted the old man ever called him anything but Arthur. He pulled his hat up by the stampede strap and put it firmly back on his head then moved his horse forward.
As he crossed the pasture on his way back to the house, the kid was deep in thought. He’d overheard the hands in town yesterday. They were talking about a ranch in the valley, the biggest in those parts. The rancher there had two sons and one of them had a reputation. Rumor had it that the younger son was quite a horseman and was making a name for himself in the ranching world with his beautiful palominos. Yep, one day Little Boston would head up to that ranch and buy himself a fine golden horse of his own. All it would take was a little time.
Let it go,
Let it roll right off your shoulder,
Don’t you know
The hardest part is over
Let it in,
Let your clarity define you
In the end
We will only just remember how it feels
Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists and turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain
Notes: The title and the lyrics are from Rob Thomas’ “Little Wonders”. Texas Red borrows his name from a character in the ballad “Big Iron” as a nod to Marty Robbins. This Texas Red fares better than the one in the song. He probably owes that to Arthur’s mom.
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